It's amazing how easy it is to become ensnared in the detail and lose sight of the big picture.
Right now, the best week of the entire year - Wheels Car of the Year - is about to begin, and as much as i'd like to think of the activity occurring outside my office as controlled chaos, really it's bedlam.
Journos are madly dialling car companies, hotels and restaurants as the final touches are made to an event that involves 25 people, 55 cars and runs for seven long days.
It’s been this way for more than a week, with varying degrees of intensity, and last night, perhaps sick of me poring over COTY spec sheets in the bedroom or proofing magazine pages at the breakfast table, my wife threw me a wobbly by asking, innocently, “So, what’s going to win?”
“Huh…” I muttered, glancing at the list of 22 contenders stuck to my living room wall with fresh eyes.
“I … don’t know.”
Whether the judges acknowledge it or not, there are always a few cars that are earmarked as serious contenders before COTY testing begins.
Favouritism is no guarantee of success, of course – history is strewn with cars that promised much only to fail spectacularly in the COTY torture chamber – but past winners such as 2016’s Mazda ND MX-5 and 2009’s VW Golf weren’t what you’d call surprises.
This year, though, things are different: there’s no clear front-runner. It’s an open field with everything from the Tesla Model X to the fifth-gen Suzuki Swift, and HSV’s brilliant GTS-R W1 (see below) to the Hyundai i30 (sans the i30 N hot hatch, sadly, which doesn’t make the cut-off date) vying for our top honour.
Perhaps the closest to a bookie’s pick are the Alfa Romeo Giulia and the Kia Stinger, both having convincingly won recent Wheels comparison tests to make them genuine contenders to take a first COTY win for their brand.
If Mazda’s much-improved CX-5 triumphs however, that will be three wins on the trot for Hiroshima. Of course, all this speculation is moot: the COTY process – a method that’s been honed with scientific precision over 50 years and is built on the five enshrined criteria of Function, Safety, Value, Technology and Efficiency – will spit out the deserving winner.
What really has me looking longingly at my office door, wishing I was already many kilometres away, at Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground with 55 cars laid out before me, is the joy of the testing. No other event or comparison test comes close to delivering what COTY does: the unbridled pleasure of driving great cars on great roads with the best road testers in the business.
It’s also liberating to be free of the time constraints and beady-eyed glares delivered by car company execs that often plague new-model launches; to evaluate the cars at our pace and on our terms. It is, quite simply, brilliant.
And at the end of it, as I disappear into the nearest bathroom cubicle to tally the final vote in secret – as tradition dictates – I’ll be left with that strange feeling of pride and apprehension as I come to grips with the fact that I’m the only person on the planet who knows what car has won.
Well, I’ll probably tell my wife, and you won’t have to wait much longer. Our COTY announcement is being brought forward this year with the winner revealed in our January 2018 issue, on sale Jan 24.
One very wild card
Some of you might be questioning how HSV’s GTS-R W1 is eligible for our gong when it is, in essence, a four-year-old car riding on a platform developed last decade.
Admittedly its inclusion is lineball, though its unique body panels, track widths and powertrain see it just sneak through our ‘newness’ criteria. Sentimentality played a role here too: the W1 will be the last Aussie-built car to ever take part in Wheels COTY.